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Besides Police, Sting's Passion Arrested By Lute

Of the Oakland Press

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Sting is certainly blasting into his past with the Police’s upcoming 30th anniversary tour.

But he’s been operating in a far different, and more different, kind of past — the 16th century.

Before he began rubbing musical elbows again with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, Sting was immersed in the lute and the Elizabethan madrigals of British composer John Dowland, which make up most of his latest solo album, “Songs From the Labyrinth.”

The set — performed by Sting and Sarajevoborn lutenist Edin Karamazov — debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart in the fall, and while its overall sales of more than 800,000 worldwide are well below the usual Sting or Police mark, it still ranks as the top-selling classical album of 2006.

Sting and Karamazov played a small number of dates to promote the album, one of which is included in an episode of PBS’ “Great Performances” series that debuts Monday. The special also is part of a new package, “The Journey and the Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland,” which features bonus footage and a CD of a concert at St. Luke’s in London.

“I think we’re lucky it is Sting doing this, who is wellknown,” says Karamazov, 41. “I think the music of John Dowland will reach far more bigger audiences because of that.”

Sting’s familiarity with Dowland’s music dates back to the early ’80s and, he says, “has been haunting me for 20 years. Various people consistently would tell me I ought to sing John Dowland, never quite telling me why. The name kept cropping up — ‘You have to sing these songs!’

“I listened and tried a couple of times, but I couldn’t quite see what people were on about.”

A couple of events brought Sting, 55, back around to it in recent years. He’d actually met Karamazov in 1992, when the latter was playing as part of a circus troupe. Impressed, Sting, whose real name is Gordon Sumner, asked the ensemble to play at his wife’s birthday party.

“I promptly got the reply, ‘No. We’re serious musicians. We don’t play people’s birthday parties,’ ” Sting recalls with a laugh. “I was well put in my place.”

Karamazov, who’s also an award-winning classical guitarist, says he and his mates were well aware of who Sting was at the time, but for his part he had just started playing lute and “was much more into learning the lute and all its complexity than going to England and playing for the party.”

The two met again a few years ago, after Dominic Miller, the guitarist in Sting’s band, commissioned a lute as a birthday present, with a labyrinth etched on its body rather than the customary Renaissance rose pattern. Miller also reintroduced him to Karamazov before a concert in Germany, which led to a slowly developing collaboration.

“It became a sort of labor of curiosity and love,” Sting explains. “It’s a baffl ing instrument, but I was fascinated by it and stuck at it. I felt it was a battle I could perhaps win. And it was certainly enjoyable to learn those songs and be challenged by them.”

Nevertheless, Sting didn’t start to think about an album of lute and Dowland music “until very late in the process,” and after he had switched from the nine-point lute Miller gave him to the larger and easier-to-play archlute — although he says that “you have to reconfi gure your brain” to play either instrument properly.

And while he and Karamazov investigated other composers, they decided to focus the album and their live performances on the works of Dowland, who wrote some duets for the lute and was the court lutenist for King James I in the early 17th century.

“Dowland seemed to be where the dice landed most often,” Sting says of their research.

They did, however, include one song — “Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow, by another Victorian composer, and they also include a version of the American blues great Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail” in their performances “just to throw a spanner in the works and have a laugh,” according to Sting.

The shows also included renditions of the Police hit “Message in a Bottle” and the Sting solo favorite “Fields of Gold.”

“This is pretty far afi eld from what I usually do, and that makes it a hard sell,” Sting acknowledges. “I think this is a longer shot than bluegrass, but the response has been very encouraging. But we did this for love, and whatever happens next is in the hands of God, really.”

What’s happening next for Sting, of course, is a return to the Police for the group’s fi rst tour in 22 years, which kicks off May 28. But he’s also eyeballing his next solo venture, too, and he’s as curious as any of his fans about what effect the “Labyrinth” project might have on his future work.

“That’s an interesting question,” Sting says. “I can never predict how what I learned is going to be included in my subsequent work, but it always is, in a veiled, implicit way.

“I don’t think good work is ever wasted. Somehow it will manifest itself, but I can’t predict what that will be.”

“Great Perform ances — Sting: Songs From the Labyrinth” premieres 10 p.m. Monday on WFUM in Flint. Check your local listings for the channel. The show is not yet on the schedule for WTVSChannel 56 in Detroit.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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